Why College Radio Is Worth Saving
It looks like WMUC will live to broadcast another year. Last week, Arts Desk reported on the severe budget cuts that threatened to pull the plug on the University of Maryland’s student-run radio station, but on Sunday the university’s student government held an emergency meeting and allotted more than $10,000 in additional funds to campus groups, including WMUC. The station received $5,810, which along with the $6,966 they received previously and more than $5,000 in donations, will be enough to cover their base operating costs.
The donations were the result of a spirited social media campaign that galvanized alumni and listeners with the hashtag battlecry “#saveWMUC.” Still, the events of last week prompted an important question: Is a college radio station worth saving?
WMUC’s situation was not just a battle over university politics—it was one more example of how many schools believe college radio to be an obsolete format. Texas Tech and Augustana College recently did away with their student-run stations, and Vanderbilt University’s administration is looking to sell WRVU, a 57-year-old institution. Last December, The New York Times reported on the struggles of these stations, including Rice University’s KTRU, and their fights to stay afloat. Just a few months later, clicking the article’s link to saveKTRU.org reveals its most recent blog post to be a sobering bummer: “KTRU student management has received word that KTRU’s broadcast on 91.7 FM will go off the air at 6:00 a.m. on Thursday, April 28, 2011.”
Today, many stations are not only fighting for the funding they once had, but they’re also grappling with attempts to reorient themselves in a digital landscape—and, on a more fundamental level, trying prove that there’s still a need for what they do.
These days, the term "college rock" is an anachronism, conjuring connotations of indie rock as a genuine countercultural expression and visions of Michael Stipe's long, flowing locks—in short, a time long since past. The Internet now does most of the things that college radio once did: It breaks new bands, exposes listeners to their favorite artists’ new releases, and it links up like-minded fans through message boards and niche music blogs. Plenty of people have nostalgia for college radio, but is it still a viable format in the digital age?
I fielded questions like that all the time when I was the general manager at WVAU, American University’s student-run radio station. Our frequency had been sold a few years earlier, and with each semester that passed it became increasingly more difficult to convince people to listen to our Internet-only stream, as opposed to downloading the iTunes library of everyone connected to their dorm’s network and putting it on shuffle. When people questioned college radio’s continuing relevance, I would defend its role in fostering local, independent scenes and creating communities for music lovers. But sometimes I doubted my own argument. Occasionally, when people would ask about my work-study job, I would tell them I was the head custodian aboard a sinking ship.
In the years since, though, and in light of WMUC’s recent troubles, I’ve come to believe that there’s a need for college radio now more than ever.
These days, we experience music in a way that’s increasingly isolated and individual. You know that this is true because some iPod zombie probably already bumped into you in the supermarket today. It’s great to have your entire library at your fingertips, in the way we listen to music today, but serendipity is now all but extinct. We drill deep into our own niches, meaning that we don’t give the time of day to things we don’t already anticipate that we’ll like. Half the fun of college radio is being exposed to things outside your perspective, or even your comfort zone.
Anyone who’s worked in college radio in the past decade will probably tell you that while being able to send your friend a mix via email or arguing about music with people on message boards is awesome, there’s no substitute for arguing with somebody about music in person.
Ironically, college radio’s best strategy for remaining vital in the digital age might be to look backward, and to focus once again on its terrestrial stations. Not all student-run stations can compete in a landscape flooded with an infinite pool of podcasts and blogs, but maybe this will make them once again embrace that unfortunate casualty of the Internet age: regionalism. College stations’ limited reach has always forced them to spotlight what’s going on in their own communities. Beyond just music programming, this is also true of college talk and sports programming, also an important part of WMUC’s lineup.
WMUC can’t exactly rejoice: It's still about $12,000 shy of its original proposed budget, and the station’s business director told the university's newspaper, The Diamondback, that students working at the station will have to pay for some equipment out of their own pockets. Plus, who knows what this means for the station in the long term: Is it only a matter of time before student-run stations vanish from universities altogether? At least for now WMUC showed it's not going anywhere without a fight.